‘Legacy’ trees face the ax in Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion
Summit Daily News
If White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams opts for his – and Breckenridge Ski Resort’s – preferred alternative for the ski area’s proposed Peak 6 expansion, 300- to 500-year-old spruce and fir trees could be at risk.
The expansion is meant to better accommodate current and anticipated visitation at Breckenridge Ski Resort, which has been steadily increasing at about 2 percent per year. Resort officials say the growth has resulted in crowding, long lift lines and lack of terrain for beginners and intermediate skiers compared to the number of guests at that ability level. The comfortable carrying capacity of the resort is currently 14,900, which is exceeded 25 percent of the winter season at the resort, officials say.
With the occasional exception of above-timberline terrain, ski trails almost always are created by cutting trees, although there’s a greater sensitivity now than when many of the older resorts were built. The largely undisturbed forest currently on Peak 6 was inventoried along with the rest of the resort in 2002 and 2009. Though they don’t meet Forest Service definitions for “old growth” trees, Englemann spruce more than 300 years old dominate the Peak 6 landscape. There’s a narrow band of trees along the mountain’s upper timberline that are 24 to 40 inches in diameter, are generally taller than the surrounding canopy layer, have rounded crown tops and have sparse foliage and crown – the characteristics of an old tree. Roughly 200 “legacy” trees were identified in this band.
The spruce-fir forest is the third most extensive vegetation type in the ski resort and contains trees, on average, roughly 90 years old. Stands on Peak 6 tend to be older, and many have been deemed legacy trees. Spruce can take 10 to 70 years before growing beyond 4.5 feet tall – and the absence of the spruce beetle outbreak that’s happening elsewhere in Colorado (as well as no wildfire) helped the trees grow tall.
Meanwhile, the most dominant tree life at the resort is dying. It’s estimated that 90 percent of the lodgepole pine forests will deteriorate under the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the next three to five years. Projects exist on and near the resort to mitigate effects of the falling trees and will make way for varied regeneration.
“How can you justify cutting down a forest, given this epidemic we’re going through?” Ellen Hollinshead said previously, an opponent of the Peak 6 expansion. “A lot of us wanted an answer to that question.”
Whether the full Peak 6 proposal (Alternative 2) or the light version (Alternative 3) is selected, the project will alter vegetation types and patterns, according to the Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement.
For the trees, Alternative 3 actually poses the most danger. Roughly 154 acres of vegetation are affected in that proposal, versus approximately 82 in Alternative 2. Both affect about 70 acres of spruce-fir forest.
According to the environmental impact statement, the damage is “irretrievable,” but because vegetation is a renewable resource, it’s not “irreversible.” In other words, the two proposals will further alter the landscape, but aren’t expected to detrimentally affect forest health within the permit area.
Alternative 2, the broader version, has been identified as the Forest Service’s preferred alternative. It would allow the resort to develop approximately 550 acres of lift-served and hike-to skiing on Peak 6 within Breckenridge’s Special Use Permit boundary established in 2002. The terrain – most of it is above treeline – would be accessed by a six-person lift and by traversing from the existing Imperial Express lift to the north. The proposal also includes a top ski patrol warming hut, but a 150-seat guest services facility at the lift mid-station was nixed.
“While clearing in this forest type would reduce the overall forested acreage within the (special use permit) area, the proposed lift and trails would not negatively affect overall forest health or reduce the potential for natural regeneration in areas not proposed for development of ski area infrastructure,” the environmental impact statement reads.
Alternative 3, or Peak 6 light, addresses public comments as well as attempting to meet the purpose and need of the project. Glading in the lodgepole forests would help regenerate the forest, though only about 5 acres of such forest will be cut. The glading is less impactful at first, but continuous skier traffic affects regeneration over time, as tree tops are cut each season.
“We’re committed to, where possible, preserving those trees,” Breckenridge chief operating officer Pat Campbell said. “We know and expect there are people who will reject any ski area expansion. We respect that opinion… It’s part of the process.”
For Rocky Mountain Wild (formerly Colorado Wild) Forest Watch program director Rocky Smith, it’s unacceptable to lose any legacy trees. They help form ideal lynx habitat and back up to the edge of undisturbed forest to the north.
“It would be an irreplaceable loss and we’re against it,” he said. “We think they’re better off just leaving it alone.”
Alternative 2 states that Forest Service personnel will identify and flag trees meeting the legacy definition, and the project work should preserve the trees to the extent practical.
“But, the desire to get the run in the right place at the right pitch and at the right curvature would take precedence over saving trees,” Smith said. “To the extend that they really, truly don’t want to cut them, that would be great, and marking them is a great start.”
Campbell said the project design is up to the Forest Service, which is charged with managing the 2.3 million acre forest, out of which a relatively small portion is designated for ski areas.
Campbell added that the forest belongs not just to Breckenridge, or even Summit County, residents. It belongs to the family from Chicago and the skier from Texas.
“Everyone is a stakeholder in these lands,” Campbell said.
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